Pew Charitable Trusts urges HHS to move forward with health IT rules amid COVID-19 outbreak

The Pew Charitable Trusts is calling for federal policymakers to move forward with data-sharing regulations in light of increased use of virtual care during the COVID-19 outbreak.

Any further delay in the interoperability rules timeline "impedes critical benefits to patients," Ben Moscovitch, project director, health IT at The Pew Charitable Trusts, wrote in an April 2 letter to Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) Secretary Alex Azar.

"The new regulations to promote data sharing play an essential role in ensuring continuity of care for patients and should be implemented without delay," he wrote in the letter published today.

The organization's call for HHS to expeditiously enforce the regulations is in sharp contrast to many other groups that have voiced concerns about the timelines given the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic.

Payer and provider organizations have said HHS' timelines to implement the interoperability regulations are "troubling" and not realistic given the current evolving pandemic.

RELATED: CMS' new interoperability rule requires major changes for payers, hospitals. Here are 6 key elements

Implementing the regulations has become a low priority for many health IT leaders in the midst of the outbreak, according to some stakeholders. Other leaders have said that moving forward with the current timelines—with some requirements starting in six months—could inadvertently pull people off important pandemic work.

Federal policymakers are evaluating whether to push back the timeline, according to comments from a Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services (CMS) representative during a Health IT Advisory Committee (HITAC) meeting on March 18.

"That is something that is definitely under consideration. We’re assessing the situation and looking for feedback," Denise St. Clair, a program analyst in CMS' health informatics office, said during the HITAC meeting.

Last month, HHS issued two widely anticipated rules, one each by the Office of the National Coordinator for Health IT (ONC) and CMS, that promote patient access to data and improved information sharing. The rules implement interoperability provisions of the bipartisan 21st Century Cures Act.

RELATED: Here are 6 ways the ONC's new rules for opening health record access will impact the industry

The rules promote greater data exchange among healthcare providers and ensure patients will have access to their personal medical records and claims data through application programming interfaces (APIs) on the device of their choosing, such as their smartphone.

Specifically, the rules require the use of standardized APIs—tools that are often used across the internet and allow two systems to more seamlessly communicate with each other, according to Pew Charitable Trusts.

Unlike groups calling for delays, Pew says quick action will help the nation confront issues raised by the coronavirus pandemic as more patients and providers rely on telemedicine to meet healthcare needs. 

Moscovitch said the pandemic has shown the current health system’s limitations.

RELATED: Payers, providers: HHS' interoperability timelines not realistic with coronavirus

"With mandatory stay-at-home orders and efforts to socially distance, patients lack the ability to go into a hospital or doctor’s office to pick up their records. Additionally, patients may be seeing new clinicians via telehealth for the very first time due to restrictions on in-person office hours or because of their symptoms," he wrote.

"What these patients share is a greater need to have remote access and exchange of their health data to make more informed health care decisions," Moscovitch said.

The interoperability rules also promote greater coordination of care among clinicians and enable patients to contribute their data for research, which may involve public health surveillance efforts in the future, he noted.

"Standard APIs could also facilitate the automated extraction of data from electronic health records for direct reporting to public health registries, eliminating the need for paper forms," he said.

While these APIs may not be immediately available, any further delay in the timeline impedes critical benefits to patients and hinders the industry's ability to use this technology to address further disruptions in the healthcare system, Moscovitch said.